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President Cancels Meeting with Group Pushing for Referendum on ‘Defining Marriage’

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has to decide whether to call a referendum on “defining marriage”, has called off a planned meeting with a group which is pushing for such a vote and which has threatened with protest rallies if the President rejects referendum proposal.

“As the public is aware the President was ready to meet an initiative group [later on Tuesday afternoon], but today a representative of this initiative group chose the language of confrontation and blackmail, effectively saying no to this consultation, which clearly shows this group’s narrow political goals. Therefore, the scheduled meeting will no longer take place,” Anna Dolidze, president’s parliamentary secretary, said on August 9.

The group, among others, also includes Sandro Bregadze, who was a deputy state minister for diaspora issues before resigning in February, 2016; the rights groups had been calling for his dismissal while he was holding the post because of his homophobic remarks.

Speaking at a news conference on August 9, few hours before now already canceled meeting with the President, Bregadze said that he was going to this meeting with the sole goal to learn about the President decision – whether he is calling or not the referendum.

“If he refuses [to call the referendum], I publicly promise that it will not pass peacefully and calmly,” Bregadze said. “Almost all the opposition parties, except of the United National Movement and Republican Party, are ready to launch with the initiative group major protest rallies against the President, because if he goes against the will of his people he will lose legitimacy… We do not rule out either blocking of the presidential palace or other radical measures in frames of the law.”

Bregadze is now with a political party, which was launched by MP Tamaz Mechiauri, who is also no stranger to making homophobic slurs and who quit the ruling GDDG party in late May after voicing anti-Western sentiments and criticizing government’s declared policy of NATO integration.

Bregadze also said that President Margvelashvili’s decision will show “whether he is Georgia’s president or a hostage of marginal, dark political forces and a slave of foreign diplomatic missions.” Bregadze claims that “pressure” is exerted on President Margvelashvili by some Western diplomats not to call a referendum. 

In late July an initiative group behind the referendum proposal on defining marriage – something which is already specified in the Georgian legislation, presented to the Central Election Commission (CEC) signatures of more than 200,000 citizens, required for the referendum to move ahead.
 
On July 30 the CEC validated authenticity of signatures and sent the petition to the President on August 1.

President Margvelashvili has to decide whether to call the referendum within 30 days after receiving the petition.

If the President decides positively, his decree on holding the referendum will then require approval from Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who is also chairman of the ruling GDDG party – some of the lawmakers from the ruling party have already spoken in favor of such referendum.

The President has not spoken publicly about the issue since the CEC sent to him the petition calling for the referendum. But in May, when the Parliament was debating GDDG ruling party’s proposal for a constitutional amendment, defining marriage as union of a man and a woman, the President criticized the proposal as an attempt “to stir a storm in a teacup”; he also said that the proposal was floated for the purpose of diverting public attention from real problems in the country.
  
Because of lack of required quorum, the constitutional bill has not been put on vote.
 
Although PM Kvirikashvili did not address the issue of proposed referendum directly, he told journalists on August 4 that the GDDG would pass the bill to define marriage in the constitution in the next parliament to be elected in the October 8 elections.

“We have started this process in the [sitting] Parliament, and I am sure that we come into [next Parliament] with such a majority that we will definitely make this amendment to the constitution,” PM Kvirikashvili said.

Support of at least 113 MPs in 150-member Parliament is required for any constitutional amendment.

GDDG MP Dimitri Khundadze, who stands for re-election as a majoritarian MP from Mtskheta district, said on August 9 that the ruling party wanted to define the marriage in the constitution in order to allay, as he put it, “fears” and misperceptions in the public that same-sex marriage may one day be legalized in Georgia. But as the Parliament failed to adopt such a constitutional amendment, MP Khundadze said, the referendum on the issue will be “prevention of this fear.”

Healthcare Minister, Davit Sergeenko, said he does not think it’s an issue worth spending additional funds on referendum.

Echoing civil society and rights groups’ position, UNM opposition party says that by pushing the issue the authorities try to make it part of electoral campaign to divert public attention from real problems.

Speaker of Parliament, Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party, which is the ruling party’s former coalition partner, also said that the referendum issue aims at diverting attention from actual problems and the Republican Party is “not going to get involved in debates and discussions over this issue.”

The proposed question for a referendum – “Do you agree that civil marriage should be defined as the union of a man and a woman for the purpose of starting a family?” – does not specify how the issue can be further “defined” as Georgia’s civil code in fact already specifies that marriage is a “voluntary union of a man and a woman”, effectively banning same-sex marriage.

Initially the same initiative group was proposing different wording of the question, asking voters if they wanted the marriage to be defined as union of a man and a woman in the Constitution.

But such wording was declined by the Central Election Commission as holding of a binding referendum on an issue obligating the Parliament to change the Constitution could have been considered as violation of law on referendum.

Meanwhile, a counter-campaign by some civil society groups and rights activists is underway calling on the President to reject the referendum on what they call is a non-issue; they say such a referendum would further marginalizing LGBT community and will increase homophobic sentiments.

An online petition against the referendum was launched on August 4 and a group of civil society organizations, united in a coalition No to Phobia, said in a statement on August 9, that such a vote will “not only be detrimental to rights of a specific group, but will also significantly damage the process of building democratic and rule of law based state and will become a dangerous precedent in the hands of majority for restricting human and minority rights.”

Noting the fact that LGBT organizations in Georgia have never put the issue of equal marriage on its agenda as it is of a lower priority issue in the country where gay people face much more pressing problems such as physical and verbal abuse and violence, the No to Phobia also said that the referendum proposal represents an attempt to “instrumentalize” LGBT issues during campaign in the lead up to the October 8 parliamentary elections.

Some lawmakers, including those from opposition Free Democrats party, were saying that introduction of constitutional amendment defining marriage as union between a man and a woman would help to counter the Russian propaganda by depriving pro-Russian forces of their false argument as if the EU tries to impose same-sex marriage on Georgia.

But No to Phobia, which unites about dozen non-governmental organizations, said that such an argument is “groundless” and on the contrary, pushing the issue will only encourages the values promoted by those very pro-Russian groups.

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